A New Tool for Advancing Participation in Philanthropy

Advancing Participation in Philanthropy Tool (APPT)

Against the backdrop of growing inequality and pressure from social movements, those in philanthropy who are listening to the demands for change are heeding the call for participation of people with lived experience. One approach is participatory grantmaking, which is about ceding decision making over grants to people impacted by funding. A broader concept is participatory philanthropy, which calls for the participation of people impacted not only in grantmaking, but across the entirety of a foundation’s functions, including governance, grants administration, finances, and monitoring, evaluation, and learning.

As consultants, we have met countless individuals who acknowledge the need for more democratic processes in philanthropy but struggle to implement new practices. We recognize the challenges. In fact, we have been staff at foundations ourselves, trying to expand or deepen our institution’s commitments. It is difficult and sometimes thankless work to transform an organization and a sector, aligning policies, practices, operations, and culture to values. Systemic, transformational change does not happen overnight, and many of us may not even know where to begin.

A new tool

To help foundation staff get started, we created an assessment tool to diagnose what changes might be needed to increase participatory practices: the Advancing Participation in Philanthropy Tool (APPT). The APPT allows grantmaking foundations to assess their current levels of participatory practice on a spectrum of 1 (no or little participation) to 4 (full participation). One of the tool’s unique contributions to the field is that it goes beyond grantmaking, considering the full range of ways a foundation works.

Advancing Participation in Philanthropy Tool (APPT)
Advancing Participation in Philanthropy Tool (APPT)

Results of the APPT assessment give users an idea of the participatory nature of their current foundation practice; and help them identify where they’d like to be. Links to existing resources support users to take next steps, moving along the spectrum toward more participation.

The APPT is organized along eight functional areas: 1) Governance & Leadership; 2) Communications; 3) Fundraising & Strategic Partnerships; 4) Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning (MEL); 5) Finance; 6) Grantmaking; 7) Grants Administration; and 8) Operations & Staffing. No two foundations are exactly alike, and these eight categories might not fit each organization exactly but they should align, generally, to major areas of foundation operations. The tool sets out key indicators and questions under each of these functional areas that users can consider as they review their practices in each category and score themselves along the 1 to 4 scale.

Here’s how this looks in one functional area: Under the Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning section, one of the indicators is about data transparency and ownership. Users taking the assessment are asked: “Who has access to and ownership of the data?” On the little to no participation side of the spectrum (level 1), the foundation does not share data back with grantees or the community. On the full participation side of the spectrum (level 4), data collected is owned by grantees and there is a dissemination strategy for publicly sharing data with the affected community. In between, there is a continuum.

How to best use the APPT assessment

The APPT can be a starting place, a pulse check, a part of a larger learning journey, or insight and inspiration for action. It was not designed to move all practices at all foundations across all eight categories to level 4 (full participation) in lock-step manner. Funders should assess their individual circumstances, resources, and goals, using the tool as one component of a change process toward embedding participatory approaches that fit best.

Following the best participatory processes, this tool is already in its third or fourth iteration. It was developed through desk research and interviews with experts on change in philanthropy, guided by a reference group, workshopped with members of the global Participatory Grantmaking Community, and road tested with 19 foundations. Because of the pilot phase, we know the APPT is best used to facilitate discussion, not as a competitive scoring process across foundations. (But we did find out that people love competition and eventually this tool could facilitate comparisons of a foundation’s practice year over year, especially over time as a foundation’s practices evolve).

Designed as a self-assessment, it’s a great way to reflect on the status quo in an organization. It can be done privately by one leader or staff member and shared with no one. Or, more usefully, it can be conducted and shared with colleagues from all levels of the organization’s hierarchy, departments, or teams. Ideally, someone from management (a governing-board member or organizational head) is included. Used in this way, it is a tool for dialogue, cross-team understanding, and planning for change.

We also recommend that organizations conduct the assessment more than once over time in order to track progress, perhaps inviting grantees and community members to participate in successive evaluations.

When APPT users assess their institution’s participatory practices in each functional area, they should ask themselves — and engage with their colleagues about — why their institution is where it is on the spectrum? They should also ask where they would like to see their institution on the spectrum. The APPT is meant to stimulate reflection, conversation, and planning.

When users conduct the assessment again at a later date, they can see how their practices are evolving, and how others gauge their work.

Another lesson from the pilot we ran: the APPT may be best timed with other evaluation or planning processes happening within a foundation. The Stupski Foundation, for example, found the discussions team members had about the APPT assessment were also relevant to their spend-down planning conversations. The assessments pointed to opportunities to deepen their participatory practices, centering on equity.

Inch by inch

After a combined few decades of working in philanthropy, we know well the slow pace of change, and the patience and dogged determination needed to push for transformation of a grantmaking institution. That knowledge informed our creation of the APPT. 

We have long been inspired by funders, such as those in the Funding Exchange network, that have led the way in charting a course that puts people with lived experience in control of grantmaking decisions. We also appreciate other participatory efforts that have changed the composition of governance structures, like boards of directors, and have put funders on a path toward changing organizational culture to center community-led and deep listening practices. 

We created the APPT to support these kinds of efforts and the champions leading them. Changing an organization is a marathon, not a sprint. The APPT is for all of us ready to work toward a better world in philanthropy. It alone won’t get us there, but our shared commitment to more just and effective philanthropy will. 

About the authors: 

Photo of Katy Love
Katy Love
Program manager, Fund for Shared Insight, and independent consultant
Diana Samarasan
Diana Samasaran
Independent consultant, and founder and former executive director the Disability Rights Fund and the Disability Rights Advocacy Fund